Elissa Elliott arrived early, quite dust-free, in a lovely curtained conveyance carried upon the city men’s shoulders. Aya was bustling about and seemed, at first, irritated that her guest had arrived early, but after being presented with a gift of a clay tablet inscribed with symbols, she ordered her visitor to sit. She served a dash of wine in an exquisite narrow-necked cup and offered figs to munch on. For afternoon repast—flatbreads, bowls of francolin stew with spinach and pine nuts, hunks of goat cheese with basil, dates, and pomegranates.
While eating in the shade of the roof overhang, they talked…
Elissa Elliott: Aya, you’ve outdone yourself. Thank you.
Aya: Oh, it’s nothing really. Anyone could have done it. (Glances away, tucks her bad foot under her robe)
EE: You have amazing skills for someone your age. What are these?
Aya: Groats. I crumble them in the stew to add thickness.
EE: They’re delicious. I’m trying to figure out how to make flatbreads as moist as these. Mine turn out like rocks.
Aya: You have to boil water at the same time.
Aya: In the tinûru, while the bread is baking.
EE: Ah, yes, and this is the tinûru? What an interesting contraption it is!
Aya: Why, what do you use?
EE: Something called an oven, which is similar—just a little shinier. All this work! Do you ever feel under appreciated?
Aya (suspicious): Well, yes. I do a lot around here. I would not count on my family noticing, though…except for Abel, maybe.
EE: But you don’t see him much, do you? He’s up in the hills for days at a stretch.
Aya (blushes): Yes.
EE: I have to ask. I hope you don’t mind. What do you think would have come of Abel and your friendship, had he not died? Do you mind talking about it?
Aya: I do think he liked me, and I should say I liked him. We understood each other. We had both heard Elohim speak, and we liked to wonder about life together. No one else was interested in that. (More shyly) He stayed behind at the city gate with me. (Flings her head back) But you knew that.
EE: I did. It’s always good to know you have a friend that will not belittle the experiences you’ve had, isn’t it?
Aya (nods): You met Mother. Did she strike you as telling the truth about Elohim?
EE: She saw Him all right. What she can’t figure out is why He abandoned her.
Aya (eagerly): But that’s just it. Why did He abandon her? She longed for Him so much. Her heart was not bad, truly.
EE: No, I agree with you. You and I are a lot alike in that regard—full of questions. So, if you could ask Elohim anything you wanted, what’s the one thing you would ask him?
Aya (thinks): Aside from wondering about my foot, I might ask him why he allowed Cain to kill Abel. Why did the good one die? Why not Cain?
EE: Would you like to guess what Elohim might say?
Aya: Well, Father would say, “My ways are not your ways,” meaning Elohim’s ways are not our ways, but I think Elohim would sit and cry with me.
Aya: Yes, because He is saddened, too, at the choices we are making. If He tried to control us, we could not love Him freely.
EE: But couldn’t He control just the evil people and leave the good ones alone?
Aya (surprised): But bad people can become good.
EE: Really? Like who?
Aya: Well, Naava for one.
EE (perplexed): I thought she left in a huff, trailing along after Cain.
Aya: That was just her. She had come to me the night before, weeping, blubbering about how she’d done so many wrong things, that she didn’t know how to rectify them. You could see in her eyes that she was sorry. She just didn’t know how to say it. She wanted to be rescued, but there was no rescuing to be done at that point.
EE: You think her heart was changed?
Aya: Yes, don’t you?
EE: I don’t know. Her meanness seemed so much a part of her.
Aya (leans forward): You. Of all people. You don’t believe in her ability to change?
EE (chagrined): Of course. It’s just hard to believe when you see people like her everywhere, and they continue doing the same awful things to others, without one glimmer of remorse.
Aya: But if you see we’re all alike, then it’s easier.
EE: We’re not all alike. You’re…
EE: I meant to say lovely to talk to—her, I’m not so sure. Do you have any regrets?
Aya (looks down at the inscribed tablet): I wish I could have gone to the city instead of Dara. I would have learned to read and write. To think. All those stories the city has! All those wonderful writing tools and wet clay. (loses her train of thought)
EE: But you did record your feelings after Abel’s death—along with your mother and sister. Those clay pieces are the ones I used to tell your stories. Thank you.
Aya: Did you find my feelings silly?
EE: Never! I fell in love with you, Aya. You have such pluck, and you always wanted the truth. One of my favorite things you said was about prayer.
EE: That while we’re asking Elohim to change His heart, perhaps He’s wanting us to know His heart, and where the two merge, that’s where our answer lies.
Aya: I like that.
EE: That came from you.
Aya: Me? Really?
Aya (leans forward, whispers): Would you like to take a look at what used to be Mother’s garden? The city has boulders all about it, but you can still see inside. I still sneak inside to get my herbs—the ones I can’t get to grow again from the slips I took.
EE: I would love to. Shall I leave my things here?
Aya (links her arm in mine): Take the bread. We can feed the birds.
EE (mops brow): So, can you tell me, what kinds of herbs do you use in your cooking?
Aya: Oh, let’s see. Lots. Nigella—
EE: What does it taste like?
Aya: Don’t you know? Aromatic, peppery, little bitter. I use it on my flatbreads—sprinkle it on top. Then there’s cumin, coriander, mint, basil—which you had today—cress, aniseed, oregano, rosemary, thyme. Chives, I can’t forget those.
EE: What’s your favorite mix of spices for wild game? Like gazelle or deer?
Aya: Those are hard to catch. Abel brings them home for me every once in a while. But rosemary, surely, and some lemon if I have it. Salt sprinkled on top while I’m braising it.
EE: And you use different herbs for healing, correct?
Aya (nods): You look feverish. I could give you a little elder and yarrow.
EE: Is that what you would use? I’m just hot. I come from a much colder place. What would you use for a headache?
Aya: Do you need to lie down?
EE (holds up pen and paper): Oh no, I’m asking so I can jot them down.
Aya (points at them): I should like to learn.
EE: I’ll give you your first lesson when we return to the house.
Aya (looks pleased): Let’s see. Headache. Peppermint. Willow—
EE: You used that for your father when he was attacked by the lion.
Aya: Yes, for pain.
EE: Now you grew herbs, too, for Naava, right?
Aya (darkly): Yes. She should have learned to do it herself. I was forever giving her ideas for color.
EE: Give me some examples.
Aya: If you boil wool in marigolds, you get shades of yellow. Madder, red. I gave madder to Goat once, to test it out, and she urinated red for days.
Aya: I don’t think it was good for her. If you want blue, you use red cabbage.
EE: Red cabbage? Does that really make blue?
Aya: A sort of robin’s egg blue. If you want brown, you use fennel or comfrey leaves. Green, rosemary or hyssop.
EE: How did you learn all this? It seems an awful lot for a young girl to know.
Aya: Are you saying I’m not smart?
EE (embarrassed): Not at all. I’m amazed. How much of this did you come up with on your own, and how much did your mother teach you?
Aya: Mother knew some from the Garden and from her trek down the mountains, but I had to do the rest. Trial and error, mostly. It’s harder to determine taste than color, because you run the risk of…well…dropping over dead.
EE: Yes, I suppose so. That would be scary.
Aya: In those cases, we used our animals, to see what worked and what didn’t.
EE: And if it didn’t—
Aya: We buried them the next day. Here’s Mother’s garden. Or used-to-be garden. Can you see?
EE: Oh! It’s breathtaking. I didn’t expect it to be this lush. It’s gorgeous. Look at all the vines. What’s that bird right there?
Aya: A bulbul.
EE: Aya, I can see why your mother was so angry, and you, too.
Aya (shrugs): I don’t know what possessed Father to do such a thing.
EE (looks at the dipping sun): I must be getting back to the city, but may I ask you one more question?
Aya: But my lesson!
EE: Oh yes, we’ll get that in somehow. What do you miss most about Goat?
Aya: She always listened and never complained…unlike my brothers and sisters.
EE: Ah yes, that is ideal for a partner, isn’t it? Now for that lesson. Shall we?
Aya (beams): Maybe I’ll be a writer like you some day.
EE: In a way, you already are.